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Alastair Bonnett on the Age of Islands

Posted on 30th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

A deeply fascinating journey around the globe in search of newly emerging islands, Alastair Bonnett’s book The Age of Islands is an enthralling look at the constantly changing face of our world in the twenty-first century. In this exclusive essay, Alastair outlines some of the most intriguing islands he has encountered.  

Ocean Reef is Panama City’s newest and ritziest enclave. Two artificial islands whose only link to the mainland is a permanently guarded causeway, Ocean Reef is a secure haven for the country’s elite. The islands have their own marine security force and are surrounded by underwater sensors that pick up anything or anybody over 40 kilos. ‘Yes, it is like James Bond,’ chuckles James, the affable Scottish-Nicaraguan real estate agent who is showing me round. I was on a two-year journey to find out why so many new islands are being built on so many shores. Seas are rising and storms are battering coasts but from Dubai to China, and now Central America, new islands are still being piled up and shaped into unlikely patterns.

Creating a safe and tranquil urban retreat for the rich is one of the reasons they are sprouting. But many of these islands are not reserved for the well-heeled. My day-trip to ‘Lebanon’, one of two completed islands of the three hundred or so that make up Dubai’s The World, costs only $40. A warm drizzle hangs in the air as our boat, with its four passengers (a family from Glasgow and me), are met on Lebanon’s pier by its Indian manager. He smiles steadfastly as the water pools on his petite white tray, bearing four cups of pineapple juice. 

Spin the globe east and I’m wedged in a golf buggy, trundling across the bridge to yet another startling creation, China’s Phoenix Island. It is a boisterous but immaculate family resort and is one of eleven new leisure islands being built around Hainan, ‘China’s Hawaii’ and its most southerly province. I didn’t get much sleep that night. At seven o’clock a switch is flicked and the island’s enormous pod-like towers begin pulsing with multicoloured patterns, swimming fish, exploding fireworks and celebratory messages. Phoenix Island is a dowdy when compared to some of the new islands that freckle the sea around Hainan. Most stupendous of all is Ocean Flower. When complete it will have twenty-eight museums, fifty-eight hotels, seven ‘folklore performance squares’ and the world’s largest conference centre, all interlaced with a fantasy architecture concoction of rollercoasters and mock castles.

If you keep swimming south of Phoenix Island you’ll eventually find yourself an unwelcome visitor on some less playful artificial islands, such as Fiery Cross Reef. It is one of seven remote specks in the South China Sea that have been mutated into landing strips, harbours and missile silos by the Chinese military.  International law gives nations with islands a hugely extended territorial range and a huge incentive to pour concrete over once untroubled reefs.

In The Age of Islands I tell the story of the world’s new islands and my, not always successful, attempts to get to them. It is also the story of disappearing islands; for islands are both rising and falling, often within the same country. Our age of islands is glamorous and desperate; fantastical, impressive and totally unhinged.

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